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Social media catering to the masses

IIM Ahmedabad professor and the inventor of same language subtitling, Prof Brij Kothari, has written a fantastic article about Gram Vaani in his column in the Financial Chronicle. Original source here

VOCAL PROVISION: A Jharkhand Mobile Vaani volunteer demos the system to new users. Gram Vaani processes 2,000 calls a day on topics ranging from poetry, health, agriculture and feedback on government schemes

India’s 150 million digitally privileged people have access to a variety of social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+ to make their voices heard and organise around issues of concern. That still leaves a billion people out of the social communication revolution. Granted, internet access is growing rapidly and expected to reach 300 million by 2015, but that would still exclude three times as many people.

Perhaps, a technological breakthrough will ramp up digital access, and that is a distinct possibility with Google piloting the use of television spectrum for internet access in rural and difficult to reach areas. However, soft access barriers posed by a lack of functional literacy and language will continue to pose enormous challenges.

So when Dilip Kumar Singh, from a remote part of rural Jharkhand, calls a toll free number to record his voice message, it demonstrates an important building block of voice-based rural social media that Gram Vaani has built. He offers a critique of the Rajiv Gandhi Vidyutikaran Yojna, how a power producing state is stuck in a power crisis. Such messages are validated before being published for online or mobile access.

The social media effect kicks in when anyone can call the same toll free number, go through a series of voice prompts, either hear what Singh and others had to say on a variety of topics or leave a message of one’s own. Akhtar Hussain, for instance, called in from rural Bokaro, Jharkhand to point out how, under MNREGA, job cards were distributed to 14-year-old children and 80-year-old seniors.

Besides grievances about government schemes, people also record their creativity for others to hear, such as, poems and folk songs, a voice-based YouTube, if you will. Others describe how they’ve been able to raise the water table in their village by creating checkdams. Gram Vaani’s analytics provide an efficient way to aggregate the messages, backed by statistical indicators. Important concerns that are flagged by people are then fed to partner field organisations, who can in turn take them up with the appropriate agencies.

The importance of Gram Vaani’s voice-based social media work cannot be overstated in a country that has a mobile subscriber base of 900 million — 350 million being rural, a functional literacy rate (ability to read any simple text meaningfully) that is at best half the official literacy rate of 74 per cent and 22 official languages. Indicative of its staggering national potential for citizen empowerment, in Jharkhand alone, Gram Vaani processes 2,000 calls a day on topics ranging from folk songs, poetry, health, agriculture, Q&A, advisories, and feedback on government schemes.

Aaditeshwar Seth, a professor of computer science at IIT Delhi and co-founder of Gram Vaani started with a question while pursuing his PhD at the University of Waterloo, “How could the success of Facebook and Twitter in the ‘developed world’ to create conversations and bring accountability, be replicated in the Indian rural context, where there is poor literacy, plus the income levels do not allow the users to purchase smartphones to access internet-based social media?”

While writing his dissertation in 2008, he won the Knight News Challenge’s handsome grant that allowed him, and three like-minded friends who joined him, to pursue this vision and found Gram Vaani. Today Gram Vaani has several prestigious awards under its belt, is an 18-member team with offices in Delhi and Ranchi. Around 50 organisations in India, Africa, and Afghanistan use their technology and process innovations.

At the heart of their technology innovation is the Gramin Radio Inter Networking System (GRINS), a radio automation system especially designed for community radio. It is a technology backbone designed and refined for use by low income and low literacy personnel, which enables them to run operations, manage content and use telephony to interface with the larger communities served. At present, GRINS is deployed in over 40 organisations and at $1,000, costs 10 times less than commercially available systems.

Another Gram Vaani innovation is vAutomate, a suite of interactive voice response (IVR) applications that work seamlessly with GRINS for a variety of purposes like surveys, polls, helplines and media campaigns. They have built processes to train communities in using these technologies in financially sustainable ways. The demand for Gram Vaani’s products has so far come mainly from the social and corporate sector, but not the government.

With its ability to bring citizen voices into the discussion and as an input into decision-making, Gram Vaani is ideally positioned as a bridge between government services and citizens. But as Seth lamented, “Getting acceptability from government departments is a much harder challenge. We have worked on a pilot basis with several departments, but this is nowhere close to the impact that can be brought if the government departments were to institutionalise the technologies and processes we are advocating, and for which enough evidence of success exists.”